Everyone dies. Not everyone truly lives. -William Wallace "Braveheart"

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Inca Trail

The highlight of our trip was definitely the 4 day hike on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Alejandro and I had never walked a day in our life, but we thought what better adventure than to make this trek together to one of the new wonders of the world.  So we took the 24 hr bus trip from Lima to Cuzco, tracked down a decent hostel close to the plaza de armas and mentally prepared ourselves for what was sure to be the most challenging 4 days of our lives. 

We took a day to explore the city and met up with our hiking group...it was then that we knew just how much trouble we had signed up for.  We walked into a room with a small conference table joined by our tour guide Jose, a couple from Scotland who were basically hiking their way around the world, and a black belt from England...yeah we were in trouble all right. 

That night we had the opportunity to stay with one of the porter's families in a local village about an hour away.  We were thrilled to see first hand how they lived their day-to-day lives and experience some true culture outside of the touristy areas of Peru.  We got to the house which was entirely made out of dirt.  Dirt walls, dirt floors, a dirt stove and were greeted by a friendly older woman who invited us inside their den/dining room/kitchen/chicken coop.  The room was sunk down about 2.5 feet below the ground level outside which meant that to get into the house you had to duck and step down. 

We did so and sat down on the dirt benches that served as seating for the dining table.  A couple minutes later I saw something I will never forget.  The woman's father began walking toward the entrance from outside...but something was not right...it took me a second to register what he was doing...he had his willy out and was peeing as he walked into the house.  And because of the level of the outside ground to the inside, I had a perfect little window from his waist down.  Needless to say a smile and a nod replaced the handshake I initially had in mind lol.

There were probably 50 guinea pigs scampering around the place and, being the animal lover I am, I couldn't help but to pick one up...he buried himself in my hair and then peed on the only long sleeve article of clothing I had for the next 4 days. At first I was mad, but then I caught wind of what the menu was for dinner and I quickly forgave the poor little fellow.  That's right dinner was cuy (aka guinea pig).  It was a special meal served only for special occasions. Knowing how much it would upset me to see the actual preparation and demise of the animal our multilingual guide implored the woman to let us leave before she did the dirty work. 
He took the opportunity to show us around the village and take us down the street to meet his family.  Upon arriving his mother ran down the stairs and greeted us with a hug and sheep's wool ponchos that she had hand knitted using wool from their sheep.  His little sister was so sweet and friendly.  She never stopped smiling and it made me think about the states and how many miserable people I run into...people that, seemingly, have everything.  Yet here was this little girl who had nothing and was happier than anyone I had ever met.
We returned back to the house to have dinner which consisted of the poor little cuy, various roasted beans, a potato/spinach dish, and coca tea to drink. I didn't want to insult anyone so I tried to eat what I could, but the cuy was burnt and there wasn't much meat (certainly not enough to share it with 6 people), the beans were really hard I tried to eat them, but it was hurting my jaw and I could have sworn I swallowed part of a tooth at some point.  I ate the potatoes and drank the coca tea and thought "at least that will hold me over until breakfast."
 After dinner another local stopped by with an unexpected treat...a giant, hand-carved, wooden harp that he had made.  He played it for us and they taught us how to do the Huayno dance of the region that accompanied it.
 After a long day and night we crawled into our tent outside (there was no room for us inside) and tried to get some sleep before the long trek early the next morning.

When we awoke, our guide told us he wanted to show us the village while they prepared our breakfast.  He took us to the top of a hill overlooking the whole village.  It was breathtakingly beautiful.
 When we got back to the house the rest of our group, who had opted out of the overnight at the porter's, were waiting for us at the kitchen table. We joined them and waited for breakfast (at this point Alejandro and I were extremely hungry and looking forward to some nourishment and fuel for the long walk ahead).  The plates were set down....leftovers....sigh. We would just have to wait until lunch.  At this stage I started to get a little worried. I am by NO means a picky eater. I will eat ANYTHING, but I physically could not chew these beans and I began to wonder if this was the same food we would be eating on the trail as well.

We left the house and piled into the bus. We got stuck behind a mule that wouldn't get out of our way for about 5 min. Then we got stuck in the mud. It took at least an hour for all the porters to heave ho us out. We finally made it to the beginning of the trail. We smiled in front of the sign for a photo op looking fresh and overly eager lol.
The first day was easy and I pushed forward pretty zealously leaving Alejandro in the dust. I was pretty pleased with myself :-) We stopped for lunch and a 30 min siesta. I held my breath waiting for the plates of food to be set down. I assumed with minimum resources to cook a meal in the middle of a mountain we would be lucky to get rock-hard roasted beans, but one by one the plates came out with the most delicious food I had ever tasted! Avocados with rocotto sauce, chicken, sweet potatoes and more! These magicians had prepared a feast fit for a king out of nothing!
 After stuffing our faces and passing out for 30 min we pressed on.  The porters had already packed up the makeshift kitchen and dining room and gone ahead of us to set up camp and begin preparing dinner so it would be ready when we arrived.  They were amazing.  They darted up those steep, never-ending, stone steps like they were nothing toting bags that looked like they weighed as much as them and I NEVER saw them stop to rest.  It was amazing!

One of the porters 

We arrived to camp just before nightfall to find our tents already set up and a hot pot of coca tea on the table.  Dinner was an equally impressive spread of food.

The next morning the porters came to our tents to wake us up and brought a bowl of hot water and washcloths for us to sponge bathe with. We ate breakfast, packed up our stuff and began walking again. 

Let me explain this trail to you before I continue because when I first signed up to do this I had no idea what I was getting myself into lol.  I thought it was going to be a semi flat dirt trail, but it wasn't.  Imagine walking up a never-ending set of stone steps (about 1' riser and 7" tread). When you get to the top of that never-ending set you turn the corner and there is another never-ending set, and so on and so forth for 8 hrs a day.  The only thing that kept me going is that I knew the only way out was to finish. The only way down was on foot.  But I digress...

Oh! A funny thing happened the second day. So we're walking right and all of a sudden we hear "oh my gosh Alejandro?!" It was an acquaintance of ours from Salsambo dance company back home, what are the odds?!

The second day the roles had reversed. Alejandro was in full swing, after becoming acclimated to the altitude, and I could barely move.  I can't say I can blame it on the altitude so much as to the fact that my body was just not used to moving. The guide, Jose, was terrific. He would run ahead to catch up with the rest of our advanced group and give them a tour of the next set of ruins, then run back and catch up with us to make sure we were alright, then run back...he was a freakin machine! He even took my backpack for me when he saw I was struggling (if you ever want to do the Inca Trail go with Wayki Trek and ask for Jose he was amazing).

They had told us that the second day was going to be hard so we hired an extra porter to carry our heavy backpack so we could concentrate on making it to the top. It was the second day that we had to brave the part of the trail known as the gringo killer, a never-ending stairway to heaven that was about 3' wide and was flanked by a wall of stone and nothing.  It was also the day we would make it to the highest point.  I was excited to finally get to go downhill, but Jose told us that that was more difficult than going uphill, not to mention harder on your knees, but I told him that I had never had knee problems and that NOTHING could be harder than going uphill. 

The "Gringo Killer"

The Highest Point
Downhill was intimidating. It was raining so the rocks were wet and the incline was straight down. I found myself sitting down and scooting down them one at a time like I did when I was 2 years old. Jose was right my knees almost immediately starting throbbing.  He put some ointment on them and wrapped them up which helped some.

We didn't go down too far the second day before setting up camp for the night. At this particular site getting to the bathroom was an adventure in and of itself.  We were on the edge of a cliff and had to scale across the front of our tents to get to the river.  There we had to skip across 3 rocks (getting rather wet with freezing water in the process) then we had to cross the river again across a makeshift bridge made out of questionable looking tree branches. Then you had to cross through another group's camp site, up a set of about 30 stone steps, and through another camp site. THEN, if you managed to hold it thus far, you could go to the bathroom. We asked Jose why we couldn't have pushed for the site closest to the bathroom and he told us we would find out in the morning.

In the morning we woke up, unzipped our tents, stepped outside, rubbed our eyes and gasped. It was the most breathtaking sight I had ever seen. We were on top of the clouds. It literally appeared as if we could step right off the side of the cliff in front of our tents and onto this fluffy white floor. It was so dreamlike that I wondered what heaven must look like...how any place could be more beautiful than this is mind-boggling.

Our Majestic Morning View
After noticing the view the next thing I realized is that...I was sick...really sick. I was freezing and the air was damp. I could barely breathe and I was hacking up a lung. I bundled up the best I could, but I really hadn't packed for this. It got better when we finally started moving, so much so that when we stopped for lunch later I ate a few bites and then asked to go ahead and leave before everyone else. This is actually kind of funny....so I leave right, and it feels so good to move because it's warming me up.  So I take off while everyone else finishes lunch and goes to the bathroom. I got this sudden burst of energy and began following the porters, paying attention to where they stepped and trying to keep up. Before I knew it I was booking it up one, two, three, four flights of stairs and still no Alejandro and no Jose. All of a sudden I hear a faint yelling..."Amanda!" "Yeah!" I respond. "WAIT WHERE YOU ARE!" I'm a little frustrated because I've finally picked up pace, but I wait. About 5 min later I see an exhausted Alejandro and Jose running toward me. They told me how they knew they would catch up with me immediately (because I would literally take 4 steps and rest). Halfway up the first flight they thought "I'm sure we'll see her sitting on the next flight of stairs." When they turned the corner and I wasn't there they thought the same thing. Turned the next corner...No Amanda.  Each time they got progressively more concerned until they were frantic. They were rolling when they finally saw me.

We kept on hiking when suddenly another problem arose. My stomach started acting up. I asked how far we were from the nearest bathroom and Jose said an hour. I will try not to get too graphic, but let's just say I was sweating and in pain and I was torn between defecating a piece of history and internally combusting.  We finally made it to this little port-o-potty down 3 flights of stairs from the path. When I saw it I was mortified. It wasn't a port-o-potty at all. It was a port-o-hole-in-the-ground with a barrel of dirty water outside in lieu of flushing. But it was too late for prudency so.......... I was in a bad fix. I couldn't even make it back up to the path without having to run back down to the ol' port-o-hole-in-the-ground again. Eventually Jose told Alejandro that he was going to have to run ahead and get to camp and that we needed to hurry or else we would be stuck on the trail with no light and no camp. I was finally able to make it back up and onto the trail at which time we proceeded to run down the wet stone steps that we had tread so carefully the day before. We were the last ones left on the trail and it was getting dark fast.

Alejandro kept running ahead of me and waiting. At one point when I was trailing far behind Alejandro I heard what sounded like a stampede coming up on me. I turned around and saw to Peruvian men flying down the trail racing each other.  I thought, "oh, this is going to be hilarious" because both Alejandro and I thought we were the only ones on the trail so I knew when Alejandro heard them thundering down the mountain he would think it was me...he did...we had a good laugh about that one.

It sounded like we were close to camp. We could hear voices down in the valley, but we still couldn't see anything through the thick brush. Here is something we learned the hard way: Valleys can be deceiving. They are kind of like giant megaphones. You can stand at the bottom of a valley and your friend can stand at the top and you can laugh and, to your friend, it will sound like you are 10 feet away when really it will take your friend another 2 hours to reach you.

We finally made it to camp within seconds of it getting so dark you could no longer see. The rest of the group cheered us on when they saw us. That night we expressed how proud we were of ourselves too. We admitted that we hadn't walked a day in our lives and they were floored that A) We attempted the Inca Trail for our first hike B) That we had made it and C) That we had made it without dying lol. That made us feel a little better about bringing up the rear.

That night I was still hacking up a lung, but I was relieved that we only had a half day of hiking the next morning before reaching Machu Picchu and getting back to Cuzco where I could get to a doctor.

The next day we woke up early and hiked to Intipunku (the sun temple). This was the point where all our hard work was going to pay off and we were finally going to be able to see Machu Picchu for the first time, but it was too cloudy. So we waited and waited for the clouds to clear. When suddenly.....
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There it was! We had made it!
Jose gave us the grand tour and told us that there was another mountain we could climb but that it was dangerous and people had died attempting it and we were like "no thank you" except Richard, who is a beast, and ran up and down that mountain before we even made it back down to the town below on the bus lol. The rest of us had seen enough stairs and we were just ready to pet the llamas and get down to town and eat.
Llama Love
Huanapicchu Mountain
No-see-em bites

These boots are made for walkin' and that's just what they did




We passed out on the bus
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